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Never mind that shoppers started shopping weeks ago and retailers started planning months ago . Black Friday officially marks the kickoff of a frenetic stretch of commerce that can boost or break careers and has the potential to leave retail workers, from clerks to executives, in an exhausted heap. Yep. It’s that time again. The four weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas represent retail’s main event. Strokes of genius and missteps alike are magnified by the pace and volume of in-store and online traffic. It’s a time when strategies and procedures developed for day-to-day operations are stress-tested — and a time when retailers can learn lessons in the cauldron of the holiday period that can be applied throughout the coming year. “Everything seems to just have a grander stage,” says Jane Feller , a senior buyer at online lighting, home and decor retailer Bellacor . “There is just a higher sense of urgency, because each day, from a volume perspective, is bigger. We have to make sure we get it right during the holiday. But at the end of the day, what we think about and how we go about doing it, is no different than a random Tuesday in March.” Key takeaways

  • Black Friday kicks off what amounts to the big show for e-commerce site merchandisers and others.

  • One key to success is using sophisticated data to make quick changes and course corrections.

  • Lessons learned during the frenzy of the holiday shopping season can be applied all year long.

I had the chance to talk to Feller and Bellacor site planning manager Jeffrey Kowalkoski as they headed into retail’s busiest season. I was curious about what happens behind the scenes at a time when traffic to online retailers more than doubles , according to e-commerce analytics company Qubit , as quoted in Forbes. (Note: Bellacor is a BloomReach customer.) The stakes could hardly be higher. Retail realizes 20 percent of its annual sales between Black Friday and Christmas, according to Qubit statistics presented in the same Forbes story. Consumers will spend more than $630 billion shopping in November and December, with about $105 billion of that going to online shopping, the National Retail Federation says. In short, everyone and his mother will be shopping for everyone and his mother. holiday shopping Macys Among the crush of shoppers are those who are visiting a particular retailer for the first time, which adds to the mix the stress of making a good first impression. “You have a lot of exposure to new customers,” Kowalkoski says, “and you have to try your best to make that experience for them the best that they could possibly have, so they’ll come back and shop your site again.” All that said, I half expected Feller and Kowalkoski to each be a bag of nerves. Honestly, I was looking for holiday stories about pressure, chaos and merchandisers, merchants and others running around putting out fires, while wishing it would all just end. But alas, that’s not quite how it runs. Oh, the holiday season is a lot of work. And it takes careful preparation , including more training, more hiring and what Feller calls “an all hands on deck” mentality. But it turns out, like many professionals, e-commerce professionals look forward to performing on their field’s biggest stage. You play violin? You want Carnegie Hall. You’re a runner? The Boston Marathon. You climb mountains? Everest. You build the customer experience on a website? Holiday shopping season, baby. “There is a little bit of art and science,” says Kowalkoski. He says he works closely with Feller, who has a sense of what customers want, because she knows the market, listens to various vendors and understands the way customers behave. That’s the art. Then there is the science. Imagine, for instance, Kowalkoski suggests, that you could examine the wear patterns in the floor of a local Target store. Mobile shopping “You’d be able to see where the customer actually walked through their aisles and what they were looking at,” he says. “We can almost paint a picture to that extent on our website — so we can see where they’re going, what they’re looking at, while making sure the experiences that we’re creating for them are in line with how they’ve previously looked at our website.” Balancing art and science is also key to making the rapid-fire adjustments that retailers need to make to stay competitive and to take full advantage of the holiday season. Having the data is great, Feller says. But it’s of little use without having smart people around. “We have more robust reporting and analytics than we have ever had,” she says. “But you still need the human factor in there. I think a lot of it is, ‘Let’s take a look at the data. What is the data telling us?’ That’s also where the human factor comes in, understanding how we look ahead and how we course-correct. The data can only tell us facts, but it’s really what we do with the facts and how we course-correct.” The holiday season is all about quick course corrections. Course correcting is one of the areas in which online retailers have a distinct advantage over brick-and-mortar stores. Think of the printed circulars that physical stores rely on, Feller says. They take months from concept to reality and once they are printed, they aren’t easily changed. “We’re a lot more agile than brick and mortar stores,” she says. “If we know, based on our analytics, that certain e-mail templates, or the home page, or the content, really isn’t resonating with the customer, we’re a little more able to change course, or course-correct a little quicker.” In fact, online retailers count on being able to change promotional messages and add more new content than they would during a non-holiday period. “The website refreshes faster. The home-page banner updates more often. You put more banners on more pages,” Kowalkoski says. “The assets that we put on our website could potentially quadruple during the fourth quarter.” When you come down to it, the holiday season is about more and faster. But it turns out that the sort of agility that merchandisers bring to bear on the busiest time of the year, is the same sort of agility that will serve them well when the holiday rush calms and there is still a lot of selling to do. Photo of mobile shopping by Robbert Noordzij published under Creative Commons license. Photo of Macy's by Mike Cassidy. Mike Cassidy is BloomReach’s storyteller. Contact him at mike.cassidy@gmail.com ; follow him on Twitter at @mikecassidy.